Oscar outcome perfectly predicable, including low ratings

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Oscar outcome: I wrote today's column after watching the Oscars, but could just as easily have written it a few days earlier.

While it was wonderful that the 80th Annual Academy Awards didn't fall victim to an extended writers' strike, the event itself turned out to be a perfectly predictable evening -- from the widely anticipated winners in most prime categories right down to the overlong sluggish show with its low energy host, flat jokes, surplus of archival montages, dull presentations of nominated songs, silly scripted banter between presenters and ratings that were the lowest in 30 years. Seeing all those clips of past Oscar winners and their touching acceptances for their work in now classic Hollywood movies simply pointed up how much things have changed in this age of small specialized Oscar contenders.

The telecast's dismal ratings shouldn't have surprised anyone given the films that were nominated this year. I saw and liked them all, but I've got to tell you that virtually no one I've talked to about the Oscars has seen all five nominees -- other than fellow media pundits whose job it is to do so. In fact, among civilians that I've talked to, most of them have only seen one or two of the pictures and made it clear that they had absolutely no interest in seeing the others. Why? Mostly, they complained, because they were overly violent and depressing. In these troubled times, moviegoers are looking for escape not for more of the same darkness and despair that they're living with daily.

This was a list of nominees driven, as I wrote here recently, by critics groups and other awards givers. Academy members have essentially stopped applauding mainstream Hollywood movies and the major studios have let them get away with it, preferring to let their specialized divisions compete for the Oscar gold.

Even Sunday's one real surprise -- Tilda Swinton's supporting actress win -- touched on the predictable because the supporting actress category, itself, is typically an out-of-left-field win. It's Oscar's one real wild card, which is exactly what it was Sunday night. But this time around there was an additional surprise because the supporting actress Oscar wasn't the first award presented. In the past, Oscar has kicked the night off with a supporting performance award to give viewers something they're likely to care about right from the start and get them to dig in for the long night ahead.

It was a mistake to lead this year's show with the award for costume design because it's only of limited interest even to those sitting in the Kodak Theater and is of virtually no interest to most viewers across the country. Viewers are interested in the fashions the stars wear on the red carpet, but not in the costumes they wear on screen.

For the most part, Academy members voted in a predictable manner following the lead that was set earlier this winter by critics groups and other awards organizations. In handicapping the Oscars one needs to realize that anything's possible and there always can be surprises, but this really was a year when allowing for something unexpected to happen would only have worked against you.

Consider, for instance, "No Country for Old Men." Sure, there was no guarantee that it would win best picture, but it certainly was the obvious horse to bet on given that it had already triumphed in votes by the Screen Actors Guild (ensemble cast), the Directors Guild of America, the Writers Guild of America (adapted screenplay) and the Producers Guild of America. "No Country" also won numerous other contests, including the National Board of Review, the Satellite Awards, the Broadcast Film Critics Assn. and those held by critics groups in New York, Chicago, Boston, Las Vegas , Phoenix San Diego, Toronto and Washington, D.C.

Some Oscar gurus speculated that "No Country" would run out of steam late in the game and be overtaken by the also very well regarded "There Will Be Blood." "Blood" didn't open until last Dec. 26 (at two theaters) and didn't go wide until Jan. 25 (at 885 theaters). Because it entered the Oscar race so much later than "No Country" there were those who thought it would have the advantage of being a fresh face with critical acclaim to drive it at a time when "No Country" could be slowing down the way "Brokeback Mountain" did before the 2006 Oscars and the way "Dreamgirls" did before the 2007 Oscars. But that didn't turn out to be the case. "Blood" made its mark in the best actor race, but didn't crossover to give "No Country" a real run for its money.

In fact, "No Country's" best picture victory should rewrite the Oscar campaign playbook that awards marketers mistakenly adopted this year. In the wake of "Brokeback's" fizzle, some marketers decided it's not a good idea to start campaigning too early in the season. They didn't take into account the fact that "Brokeback's" loss probably reflected the unpopularity of its subject matter with Academy members rather than whether it started campaigning too early. They also pointed to the demise of "Dreamgirls," blaming it on an overly aggressive marketing campaign that started too early by showing 10 minutes of assembled footage at the Cannes Film Festival. What they didn't remember was that "Dreamgirls" started slipping only after people finally got to see the whole movie.

Clearly, Miramax did a spectacular job of marketing "No Country." Its campaign started way back before the film opened in limited release last Nov. 9. If anything, "No Country's" win should be a signal to Oscar marketers that campaigning early makes all the sense in the world -- as long as you have a picture that delivers the goods the way "No Country" does. Arriving late in the game actually makes it harder for a good film to be seen in time by the media crowd that creates the buzz that drives the awards process. It also poses problems for Academy members who don't have much time to see films in December before they leave L.A. for their winter vacations in Aspen, Hawaii and other resorts. When they come back, there's never enough time to see everything they should see before they have to send in their nominations ballots.

Hopefully, Oscar marketing gurus will now realize that it's smart to get out there campaigning as early as possible for films that are truly awards worthy. Movies that fall apart do so not because they started campaigning too soon, but because they don't have what it takes to win. Once the secret's out, they're out with it.

There was more predictability Oscar night in Joel and Ethan Coen's best directing win. But here, too, a long list of earlier victories made an Oscar win inevitable. The Coens not only won the DGA award, but also prevailed in votes for the BAFTAs, the Satellite Awards, the Broadcast Film Critics Assn.'s Critics Choice Awards and by critics groups in New York, Chicago, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Las Vegas, London, Phoenix, San Francisco, Toronto and Washington, D.C.

The same basis for predictability was, of course, also present in the best actor race where Daniel Day-Lewis was the obvious favorite to win after being honored by the BAFTAs, Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, National Society of Film Critics and Broadcast Film Critics Assn. as well as by critics groups in Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Chicago, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Phoenix and San Diego. With that array of victories behind him, Day-Lewis was a lock to win Oscar night.

Some reports have called the best actress race an upset, but that really wasn't so. Although Julie Christie had racked up an impressive string of critics groups wins for her role in "Away From Her," Marion Cotillard's performance as Edith Piaf in "La Vie en Rose" had also attracted the kind of major media attention that can -- and, in this case, did -- translate into an Oscar triumph. The best actress race really was a Christie-Cotillard coin toss and the fact that Cotillard won shouldn't be considered a big surprise.

The two actresses had both done well in votes by key groups throughout the season. Cotillard had already won in the BAFTA, Golden Globe (musical or comedy), European Film Awards, Cesar, Satellite Awards and Screen Actors Guild votes as well as in critics contests in Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago and Seattle. Christie's wins were in votes by the Broadcast Film Critics Assn., Golden Globe (drama), National Board of Review, National Society of Film Critics and in critics group votes in New York, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Phoenix and San Diego. Some insiders felt Christie was the favorite because she would draw sentimental votes, but Academy members weren't big on sentiment this year (as Hal Holbrook and Ruby Dee can also attest).

In the supporting actor race there really was no doubt that Javier Bardem would take home the Oscar. Bardem's long list of wins included the BAFTAs, Broadcast Film Critics Assn. Awards, Golden Globes, Satellite Awards, Screen Actors Guild awards as well as critics group votes in New York, Boston, Chicago, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Toronto and Washington, D.C. Bardem was probably the safest bet you could make Oscar night.

Hollywood handicappers who speculated that Academy members might cast a sentimental vote for Hal Holbrook's supporting performance in "Into the Wild" to honor the well liked veteran actor for the first time in his long career were dead wrong. Academy members may be old, but they're clearly not very sentimental.

The best supporting actress race wasn't predictable, but that actually was totally predictable because this category is typically a wild card. Knowing that it could go any number of ways, insiders felt the best prospects to win were Amy Ryan for "Gone Baby Gone" and Ruby Dee for "American Gangster."

Ryan had been winning awards all season, including those given by the National Board of Review, Satellite Awards and the Broadcast Film Critics Assn. as well as in votes by critics in Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Phoenix, San Diego, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

Dee wasn't on the awards radar for her performance in "American Gangster" until she scored with the Screen Actors Guild, a key victory that catapulted her into a two-horse Oscar race with Christie and gave Dee a possible edge because of the sentimental votes the veteran actress could attract. But, once again, Academy members weren't thinking sentimentally and in this one category they didn't care about how other awards givers had voted.

Tilda Swinton hadn't won a lot of critics groups' votes for her performance in "Michael Clayton." Her biggest success came late in the game in the BAFTA race. She prevailed with only a handful of critics groups, including those in Dallas-Ft. Worth and Kansas City. Nonetheless, Swinton resonated really well with Academy voters and took home an Oscar. She probably benefited from the fact that "Clayton's" other noms -- best picture, director, actor, supporting actor, score and original screenplay -- were all long shots to win. That made a vote for Swinton the best way to give something to "Clayton."

On the best screenplay front both the original and adapted wins went exactly as anticipated considering how the season had already played out. Diabolo Cody, who won best original screenplay for "Juno," established herself early on as this awards season's "It Girl." She emerged as a hot new media celebrity thanks to her utterly candid in-your-face interviews with David Letterman and others, her unique self-created name, her tattoos and her sexy back-story as a one-time stripper and phone sex actress. On the road to the Oscars, Cody had already won honors from the BAFTAs, the Broadcast Film Critics Assn., the National Board of Review, the Satellite Awards and the Writers Guild of America. She also drew applause from critics groups in Chicago, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Phoenix and San Diego.

Similarly, there was little doubt in the adapted screenplay category that the Coen brothers would go home winners. Going into the race, they'd already won screenplay votes by the BAFTAs, Broadcast Film Critics Assn., Golden Globes, National Board of Review and the Writers Guild of America. They also took home top writing honors in critics votes in New York, Chicago, Kansas City, Phoenix and Toronto.

All told, in these prime non-technical categories it was a pretty predicable Oscar outcome. The best way to win the office Oscar pool was just to have kept track of who won everything else this awards season and to have put your money on them.

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Oct. 26, 1990's column: "As glasnost brings closer ties between America and the Soviet Union, Hollywood is finding the USSR to be a promising source of new business.

"Earlier this month, for instance, James Bond, the last hero one would ever expect to see on Soviet movie screens, came to Russia in 1983's 'Never Say Never Again.' 'This film opened the same week in Moscow in the largest cinema, called October, which has about 2,500 seats; in Leningrad in the Cinema Center; and in Riga in the Palace of the Officers,' Yuri Spilny, president and CEO of the Los Angeles-based USSR Film Service Corp., told me...

"How did Agent 007 achieve such a coup? 'Initially there was great interest from a commercial standpoint to show it in the Soviet Union, but they proceeded carefully,' explains Spilny ...'The film is distributed by SKS (Soyuzkinoservice). They wanted to make a deal, but they were still very cautious in terms of publicizing it. But this changed very, very quickly -- within two or three months...

"At that point the job of marketing 'Never' began: 'All the publicity materials (producer) Jack Schwartzman gave us were utilized to sell this picture territory by territory to local distributors. Mass distribution can be achieved only by using the government distribution network. All the theaters are still owned by the government. The major distribution network is still a government distribution network although it is becoming more fragmented as republics and municipalities are becoming more and more independent." Each Soviet municipality has its own distribution operation run by local bureaucrats...

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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